Tuesday, June 01, 2004

As new Ellis Island, Arizona is adrift

As new Ellis Island, Arizona is adrift

As new Ellis Island, Arizona is adrift

Jun. 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Phoenix is the new Ellis Island.

A friend offered this profound observation the other day.

He's almost right. Arizona is the new Ellis Island, just a lot less welcoming.

We all know how the state has become the U.S. gateway for Mexican migrants who have been blocked from crossing through the more traditional entry points, California and Texas.

We just haven't fully appreciated the significance of this turn of events.

To put it in perspective, between 1892 and 1954, when it officially closed, Ellis Island had welcomed more than 12 million immigrants.

Twelve million is a significant number. Here's an even more significant number.

"Over 100 million Americans can trace their ancestry in the United States to a man, woman or child whose name passed from a steamship manifest sheet to an inspector's record book in the great Registry Room at Ellis Island," says a Web site for the Ellis Island Immigration Museum (at

That means that roughly 35 percent of Americans can trace their citizenship, and all the bounty flowing from that, to Ellis Island.

It is why, I suspect, we have tended to idealize that period, though a look at history unvarnished will reveal anxiety even then about allegedly insurmountable problems of assimilation and acculturation.

And it all turned out just fine.

So, will we at some point idealize this current period of immigration? The enmity we are displaying doesn't offer bright assurances.

Some of our elected officials in the state favor broad immigration reform, others a guest-worker program that falls short of broad reform and far too many more favor just rounding up all our "guests" and shipping them home.

A group, Protect Arizona Now, is collecting signatures to put an initiative on the November ballot that would bar undocumented immigrants from services they are already mostly barred from. It would also prevent them from voting, which they already can't do.

The message: You're scum. So leave. Not exactly the welcoming words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

Judging from my e-mails and calls, a whole lot of folks out there believe that Arizona would simply be nirvana if only those undocumented immigrants weren't here. There is a disturbing tendency to blame all ills on them, from messy parks and streets to crime and social costs.

What if instead, however, we lived up to the ideals we say Ellis Island epitomizes?

For instance, there have been some high-minded words floating around for a while now about this country being a beacon of freedom and opportunity.

OK. These are important to our newest immigrants too.

There is the ideal of equal justice.

Well, if our economy demands them but we who need them demonize them, doesn't this upend this concept?

If we perpetuate a system that discourages those folks we really can't live without from reporting abuses and crimes, this also isn't equal justice. Broad immigration reform would do far more justice to equal justice.

Remember that 100 million figure, the number of people here who can trace their American beginnings to Ellis Island?

There is a significant number of folks here, about 35.6 million, who are Latino and can trace their U.S. beginnings to crossings that mostly had nothing to do with the Atlantic or Ellis Island.

By 2050, this population will nearly triple, growing to 102.5 million, according to Census projections.

We can hope, once Latinos also cross that 100 million threshold, that the country will then come to idealize their crossings and their subsequent contributions.

Right now, it's not looking good.

The rhetoric about immigrants is still laden with demonization, likely only to worsen if the Protect Arizona Now initiative makes the ballot.

More important, border and immigration policies have forced many of our newest immigrants to try to cross Arizona's deserts, where they have died horrible deaths. Men, women and children. More will certainly die this summer.

It's entirely too possible that Arizona will be remembered as more akin to Devil's Island than to Ellis Island. It doesn't have to be.

Reach Pimentel at or (602) 444-8210. His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.


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